It’s Time to Remove Professional Barriers for Lawyers With Disabilities

lawyers with disabilitiesSometimes, in order to find a solution, barriers in the legal profession need to be analyzed. As lawyers, we tend to focus on barriers. How is that going to happen if X and Y are true? This is a potential problem, so how would that solution work? These are questions likely heard between a lawyer and their client. We learn to think like this in law school and it continues throughout our practice.

This barrier-based thinking often serves us well as lawyers. It helps us see potential pitfalls for our clients. However, this type of thinking can also lead to being hesitant to change and, consequently, not finding a solution. Therefore, the focus on barriers needs to be flipped, especially when talking about how to move the profession forward .

Replacing Established Barriers

2020 marks the 30th anniversary of the signing of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) into law. Today, nearly 1 in 4 Americans has a disability. However, this number isn’t reflected in professional and leadership roles.

The legal profession is a good example. According to the NALP 2019 Report on Diversity in Law Firms, just under  0.46% of partners self-reported as having a disability in 2019. This is down slightly from 0.52% in 2018. For law students, NALP research suggests that between 2.5% and 3.5% of graduates self-identify as having a disability.

There are plenty of barriers in the legal profession that explain the low percentage of lawyers with disabilities. These include law students struggling to obtain accommodations during law school and on the bar examination, law firms using technology that is not accessible through assistive technologies, and office spaces that make getting around impossible for people with disabilities. However, instead of focusing on these barriers, let’s focus on three opportunities to remove barriers for law students and lawyers with disabilities.

Inclusive Technology

When we talk about legal tech, the focus is typically on how technology can assist lawyers work more effectively and efficiently. There’s not a lot of discussion around how technology can help diversify the profession, especially for people with disabilities. Haben Girma, an American disability rights advocate and the first deafblind graduate of Harvard Law School, says, “Technology facilities connections when both parties are willing and interested in practicing inclusion.”

I recently spoke with Rachel Weisberg, Employment Rights Helpline Manager and Attorney at Equip for Equality about inclusive technology. She said that many types of legal case management technology isn’t  often accessible to attorneys who use assistive technology.

In response to this issue, the American Bar Association (ABA) passed a Resolution in August 2018 to urge the legal profession to use technology that’s accessible to people with disabilities. According to the Resolution, “As technology changes the way legal services are accessed and delivered, innovation must be digitally inclusive for lawyers, their clients, law students, judges, and everyone else within the legal ecosystem.”

Because the technology exists, the main barrier in the legal profession is resistance to change. Look at the technology your firm is using. A simple starting place is checking if your website is ADA and WCAG compliant. In addition, does your legal case management software work with assistive technology? If not, why? According to the United Nations, digital technology has the potential to be a great equalizer.

Committed Law Firms

In addition to using more accessible technology, the ABA encourages law firms to include disability in their diversity efforts. The ABA created the Pledge for Change, in which signatories commit to disability diversity in their office and encourage other legal professionals to do the same. The signatories include both big and small law firms, law schools, and bar associations, including Seyfarth Shaw LLP, Yale Law School, and State Bar of California.

According to Weisberg, anecdotally, some law firms are starting to improve their culture as it relates to disability inclusion. Organizations are doing so by creating disability employee resource groups and sharing stories of successful attorneys with disabilities.

As a legacy project to celebrate the ADA’s 25th anniversary, Equal Justice Works is offering a fellowship to an attorney with a disability seeking to pursue public interest opportunities. In fact, Equip for Equality was the first organization to receive an attorney as part of this prestigious fellowship.

Supportive Bar Associations

Bar associations are great resources for developing solutions to overcome barriers in the legal profession. Weisberg highlighted several groups focused on empowering lawyers with disabilities, including the National Association of Attorneys with Disabilities, Deaf and Hard of Hearing Bar Association, National Association of Law Students with Disabilities, National Association of Blind Lawyers, and the ABA Commission on Disability Rights.

These groups aren’t only important for networking, but, according to Weisberg, they provide valuable mentoring for law students and young attorneys with disabilities. These individuals can benefit (greatly) from having mentors and role models who’ve overcome the same professional challenges.

A wonderful example of this occurred on December 11, 2019. Ten members of the Deaf and Hard of Hearing Bar Association (DHHBA) were sworn in and admitted to the Bar of the United States Supreme Court. DHHBA President Rachel Arfa, also from Equip for Equality, made the motion in American Sign Language (ASL) and Spoken English, becoming the first attorney to address the Court in two languages simultaneously. Chief Justice John Roberts responded to the motion in ASL and Spoken English, signing, “Your motion is granted.”

These three solutions only scratch the surface on tangible actions that can make the legal profession more inclusive. In 2018, then-Chair of the ABA Commission on Disability Rights Robert Gonzales summed it up well. He said, “As the world evolves through technology, no one in the profession-or the public it serves-should be left behind.” My fellow attorneys, it’s time to remove the professional barriers for lawyers with disabilities.

Share your ideas below in the comments.

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Stephanie Villinski
Stephanie has dedicated her career to social justice and worked in public interest law for the past 15+ years. As Deputy Director, Stephanie is responsible for streamlining the day-to-day operations of the Commission in addition to supporting its education, law school, and mentoring programs. With a particular interest in wellness, Stephanie seeks to promote a healthier, more rewarding professional life for lawyers and by extension, better service to their clients. In her free time, Stephanie enjoys yoga, meditation, watching sports, and time outdoors.
Stephanie Villinski
Stephanie Villinski
Stephanie Villinski

Latest posts by Stephanie Villinski (see all)

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Stephanie Villinski
Stephanie has dedicated her career to social justice and worked in public interest law for the past 15+ years. As Deputy Director, Stephanie is responsible for streamlining the day-to-day operations of the Commission in addition to supporting its education, law school, and mentoring programs. With a particular interest in wellness, Stephanie seeks to promote a healthier, more rewarding professional life for lawyers and by extension, better service to their clients. In her free time, Stephanie enjoys yoga, meditation, watching sports, and time outdoors.
Stephanie Villinski
Stephanie Villinski
Stephanie Villinski

Latest posts by Stephanie Villinski (see all)

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